Weekly Preaching: November 1, 2020

October 28th, 2020

After many years, All Saints’ Day actually falls on a Sunday! — and as I write this week in advance, we are preparing for the possibility of not being together in the sanctuary. Hauntingly fitting, as this is the day we take note of being together with those who aren’t here, who have departed, the communion of the saints.

How to preach All Saints’, without being sappy or boringly predictable? Our texts open windows for us into broad spaces that are far more intriguing than simply Mama has gone to heaven or Daddy’s playing golf with Grandpa every day and we’ll join them by and by. How vapid and self-indulgent is so much of what our people believe about heaven? And they probably derived all this from some place.

I do love the notion of church as a family of love, perhaps on All Saints’ more than any other day. In Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Animal Dreams, we read how the citizens of a town called Grace observed the Day of the Dead: lavishly decorating the cemetery, nothing solemn, but much laughter, running, and many flowers. "Some graves had shrines with niches peopled by saints; others had the initials of loved ones spelled out on the mound in white stones. The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care. It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead. In these families you would never stop being loved."

And before turning to our texts, I'll add a great line from Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Jack. Della, who falls in love with Jack, the prodigal of the Boughton family, speaks of the mystery, the image in all of us and those we've loved: "Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery — you’ve seen what life is about. What it’s for. And a soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure. No more than a flame would have. There is nothing to be said about it except that it is a holy human soul. And it is a miracle when you recognize it."

Consider these three texts: Revelation 7:9-17. John is granted a glimpse into heaven, not a gigantic palatial estate in the sky where you go after death, but ultimate reality right now, as dual plots are being played out before our very eyes. The world is plodding along in horrific directions; but Augustine’s “city of God” is there too, for those who can see, a cosmic battle being waged over our souls and history itself.

For those who can see — and hear. Fascinating that John “looked” (v. 9) — but then the report is mostly about what he “heard.” We cannot see eternity, or heaven, but we hear, we overhear, and the hearing induces hope and confidence. Heaven, as we hear of it, is lots of bowing and worshipping. Not like going to church all day every day, but being awed and allured by the stupendous wonder that is God that we just won’t be able to take our eyes off the throne of grace.

I wonder as we near the end of 2020 if it’s worth being attentive to “Those who have been through the great ordeal.” Bible and the life of faith are about enduring ordeals. The first readers (hearers actually!) of Revelation knew family and friends who had lost their lives, not to a disease but to Roman persecution. They wear white robes washed in red blood (gory… and what does this image do to ways we try to think about race?). And I just want in my sermon to name, and ponder, without any explanation, that “the Lamb will be their shepherd.” Lambs need shepherds. The shepherd manages the lambs. But in God’s redeemed creation, the lamb is the shepherd. In preaching, we don’t have to explain everything or provide a takeaway. It’s just a real ahhhh moment.

1 John 3:1-3. You could preach a pretty long series of sermons on this text, which should be read very slowly, maybe repeated, pausing on this or that marvel. We are, not we hope to be, God’s children now. And yet there is a “what we will be” not revealed to us yet. When will that be? Not “When we all get to heaven,” but rather “When he is revealed.” It’s all about him, not us! In that realization, “We will be like him.” Am I now? Yes, we’re God’s children now. Am I unlike Jesus? Heck, absolutely. But then we will be like him — just as he became like us in the incarnation.

As my father died this year, I am toying with telling how, late in his life, when he was alone in his nursing home under COVID restrictions, and not facile at a laptop or the phone, I started copying out on big pieces of paper photos of him from his life: a few I had from his childhood and adolescence, when he was in the Air Force, his parents, his siblings. He loved this. Understatement. It gave him joy, and regret. The photo I found of his wedding to my mother: he called me (a rarity), beamed over how very beautiful she was, and cried that he'd been unable to love her enough to keep their marriage together. "We are not yet who we will be." We're not nothing! We're a lot, a lot of memories, dreams, delights, wounds, fears. God will redeem all of that, not shuck it or leave it behind when we become "like him."

But how will this happen? “We will see him as he is.” When we see him, really see him, not our fantasies about him or projecting our image of whatever onto him, but as he is, that will make us like him, we will be awed and unable to take our eyes off him — and thus we will be like him, as he will be our vision, our heart, our total reality. I’m circling. Preachers can circle. Let people be drawn into the circle. There’s no moral takeaway, no “go thou and do likewise” here. It’s just a marvel to behold. We may rightly covet the saints we’ve lost, for they are already living fully in this circle of being lost in wonder, love and praise. They inspire us.

“See” is idete, like Behold! And then there’s that little nothing of a word, “what.” What what? According to Raymond Brown, this “what” expresses “both quality and quantity, thus, how much love, and what amazing love.” Volume (overwhelmingly endless) and quantity (the likes of which we only dream of): God’s love makes us God’s children. Jesus spoke of becoming like children — and I think of the beautiful moment in 2 Kings 5 when the leprosy-stricken Naaman finally washed in the Jordan, and his flesh was restored “like that of a young child.”

Matthew 5:1-12. I explored the Beatitudes in another blog for All Saints 3 years ago, touching on each line and its implications — a little digest there of my book The Beatitudes for Today. There, and often, I’ve said this text is not prescriptive, it’s not a list of commands, like “Go be meek!” or “Go make peace!” Jesus simply blesses people. And it’s autobiographical — so the blessed are those who are like him (echoing 1 John 3!). But I do wonder, today, as we draw near to the end of 2020, if we might lean in a bit to suggesting Jesus is commending habits and dispositions here. In our day, we might strive for some poverty of spirit. We have good cause to mourn; so many griefs and losses, all the more if we ponder what Bob Pierce envisioned (“Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God”). Meekness would serve us political ideologues well. Mercy, purity of heart, making peace. Even being persecuted, suffering for faith. We live in a day when this actually happens, although it’s usually in surprising ways, right?

Of course, as it’s All Saints’ Day, the accent may well fall on “Blessed are those who mourn.” We come mourning, indeed — but we grieve as those who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Again, I trust the reading of the names in God’s holy place more than I trust my frail words to express the hope of the gospel!


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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